Posted in Writing

How Fragments Better the Rhythm in Your Writing


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away.

The poor fragment. Why is it hated so?

Throughout high school I was taught to never use a fragment. That every sentence I write has to be a complete sentence. That my work would be marked down if I included even one lone fragment.

The truth is each genre of writing comes with its own set of rules and expectations. The reason we learn in high school never to use fragments is that, for the most part, academic writing shouldn’t have fragments. I would argue that the occasional fragment is acceptable if you’re relating a personal story or allowed to give the piece a little of your own voice. If the piece is meant for a job application, or for a strict professor who has no sense of humor, then you would be best served to write in only complete sentences.

For the longest time, and even a bit in my first few novels, I struggled to allow myself to write fragments. They also looked awkward on the page, and often in revisions I would cut the fragment completely or alter the sentence slightly to make it a complete sentence. I was taught for so long to not write fragments, so why put them in my work now?

The answer is simply this: rhythm. It’s not something that can really be learned or taught. It’s not something that comes easily to every writer. It’s certainly something you can study through reading lots and lots of books, in a variety of genres. And it’s something you’ll learn not necessarily in the writing of your first novel, but in the fourth, and the seventh.

The rhythm of your sentences, especially in a long work of fiction, is incredibly important. How much description you include, how much dialogue, how many big paragraphs mixed in with shorter paragraphs — all vital. But the rhythm of the sentences themselves also make a huge impact on whomever is reading your book. No matter what genre of fiction you work in, writing one complete sentence after another after another, for pages on end, might look grammatically correct to you, the writer, but it won’t provide the best possible experience in the reader.

You want your reader to get lost in your world. You want the sentences to find such a glorious rhythm that the reader can’t stop flipping through the pages. And keep in mind, too: most readers won’t read every single sentence. I can’t tell you how often I randomly will skim a paragraph or a page, even in a book I’m loving. I’m sure there are some readers who savor every word of a novel, but I would assume most at least occasionally skim. You know when they will skim most often? When you have big block paragraphs with only long sentences, and no fragments. When the language becomes intimidating, lengthy, verbose, you might lose a few of your readers. And even in longer paragraphs, fragments can help with this problem.

Don’t be afraid of fragments. I wouldn’t overload your prose with them, by any means. Have no fragments, and your writing can become stale and arduous. Have too many fragments, and your writing looks downright silly. It’s important to find the right balance, for sure, but you absolutely want the fragment to be your friend. Experiment with them. Try a couple in a page of your writing. Put a fragment in the middle of a paragraph, in between two longer sentences.

Remember to think about rhythm in your writing, and the more experience you get, the better this rhythm will become. Yes, even with the occasional fragment!

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